CENTRAL POINT — Looking back 30 years after his assignment to the U.S. Army outpost of Fort Lane near Lower Table Rock in the 1850s, Gen. Joseph Lane remarked in his memoir how much the landscape had been changed by settlers' habits of suppressing wildfires.
"The hilltops now covered by dense thickets of manzanita, madrone or evergreen brush were then devoid of bushes and trees because of the Indian habit of burning over the surface to remove obstructions to their seed and acorn gathering," Lane said in an 1884 book.
More than 130 years later, the larger Oregon white oaks that were well-established during Lane's time are still here, but the brush and smaller oaks that now shroud them are ripe to fuel a wildfire that could destroy them.
Now a partnership of land stewards is harking back to the Native Americans' strategy to sustain what's left of these "legacy oaks" by re-establishing their dominance on the slopes of the Table Rocks and priming them for the future.
Lomakatsi Restoration Project is in the final year of a two-year, $1.28 million effort to cut and burn the thick chaparral threatening the oaks while keeping less menacing patches of chaparral for as many as 200 wildlife species known to use them, including the Lewis' woodpecker and Roosevelt elk.
When completed, the project will reduce the chances of high-intensity wildfires and give these rare oaks a leg up as they prepare for more fires expected amid climate change.
"It's not about creating a museum piece," says Darren Borgias of The Nature Conservancy, a key player in this government-private sector partnership that put this project together. "It's restoring a habitat that can continue to evolve.
"You're going to have fire," he says. "The question is, how do you want your fire? To sustain the legacy trees or to kill them?"
The oak savannas of presettlement time stretched in low-elevation lands from Northern California to British Columbia, and they were well adapted to low-intensity fires. But more than 90 percent of them are gone now, victims of clearing for development of farms, ranches and housing developments.
The Rogue Valley still has pockets of these immense oaks older than the U.S. Constitution, their thick, lichen-covered limbs twisting horizontally like cracks in a broken windshield. Lands around Agate Lake and in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument sport significant stands, as do the Table Rocks.
The Table Rocks legacy oaks are significant in that they are in oak chaparral habitat, which includes a mix of ceanothus and manzanita that collectively host a plethora of wild species, ranging from the cavity-nesting Lewis' woodpecker to rare plants such as the white fairypoppy.
"Our region is a stronghold for white fairypoppy because we still have oak chaparral," says botanist Kristi Mergenthaler of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.
Mergenthaler calls the Lewis' woodpecker "a poster child for big oaks" because it nests in their cavities and eats mostly flying insects that swirl over the treetops.
But the declining habitat means these woodpeckers leave the Table Rocks to breed elsewhere, Mergenthaler says.
"Lewis' woodpeckers have been slowly blinking out in the Western states along with the big oaks," she says.
While Native Americans in the Rogue Valley called them "Wa He Clos T'Kope Skookom Shiral-Peh," or "Sacred White Strong Tree," these members of Oregon's old growth don't have the public stature of tall stands such as Douglas fir or Ponderosa pine.
No one chains himself to a 300-year-old hardwood tree to call attention to fire suppression's threat to legacy oaks.
"People tend to be conifer-centric," Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey says. "This is a vanishing ecosystem that doesn't get that much attention, certainly not as much as we'd like."
But that's been changing.
Lomakatsi, The Nature Conservancy and the Klamath Bird Observatory have joined with the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service in a "Klamath-Siskiyou Oak Network" to promote habitat restoration and protections for oaks on public and private lands.
The group used a mix of federal grants and private funding to treat 1,400 acres of public and private lands in and around Upper and Lower Table Rocks for oak habitat restoration and prep the area for the changing climate.
After on-the-ground work last year focused on Upper Table Rock, chainsaws are buzzing weekdays now at Lower Table Rock and burn piles and low-intensity prescribed fires are expected to be ignited this fall and run into spring.
It's a work Borgias has been championing for more than two decades, but it wasn't until the collaboration formed that money could be raised for it, he says.
KBO and TNC will monitor the impacts over time, and that monitoring is expected to show that the Table Rocks area will be able to withstand the severity of wildfires expected amid climate change.
"There's more urgency to safe-harbor this habitat through upcoming climate change," Borgias says. "This way, these oaks can lifeboat their way into the future."